On November 30th, Americana artist Ryan Bingham announced that he will be hosting and curating an inaugural festival April 12th and 13th, 2019 in legendary Luckenbach, TX called The Western Music Festival. Early performers announced include Colter Wall, Old 97’s, Jamestown Revival, The Wild Feathers, Jesse Dayton, Jai Malano, and The Americans. Backed by mega promoter Live Nation, it is one of many new festivals centered around an individual artist, creating a destination aspect for dedicated fans. This is one way to ensure quality turnout in the increasingly-crowded festival space.
The Western Music Festival is a great idea. Holding it in Luckenbach, TX is a excellent location for a mid-sized festival of this kind. The early lineup looks superb. The only problem is Ryan Bingham and Live Nation are holding the festival on the same weekend as the region’s major independent roots event of the year, the 32-year-old not-for-profit Old Settler’s Festival.
There are many festivals in and around the Austin area throughout the year, but there is only one established festival that specifically caters to the country/bluegrass/Americana crowd, and that’s Old Settler’s Fest. It’s the Newport Folk, or MerleFest, or Pickathon, or AmericanaFest of Central Texas. Of course South by Southwest has many Americana acts perform, and includes many side festivals such as Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion and other events, but SXSW is it’s own unique animal. ACL Fest every October also includes some roots artists, but has obviously grown over the years to be a huge, multi-genre destination festival. The Kerrville Folk Fest also has a rich legacy in the region, and has always respected Old Settler’s space, as has Old Settler’s respected Kerrville Folk’s space.
There are plenty of weekends when Ryan Bingham and Live Nation could hold their new festival and not compete with Old Settler’s, even with the seasonal weather restrictions of the region. Old Settler’s had announced their dates way before the Western Music Festival was known to the public, including Old Settler’s announcing their initial lineup, which includes headliners Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, and Brandi Carlile who was just nominated for an astounding six Grammy Awards. Hayes Carll, The SteelDrivers, The Del McCoury Band, John Moreland, Mandolin Orange, and Wood & Wire are some of the other names announced for the fest.
It’s doubtful that Ryan Bingham himself is trying to undercut a long-established grassroots festival with his inaugural event, but Live Nation has history of such predatory practices—setting up rival festivals just to undermine or bankrupt independent promoters to increase their footprint in a given market or region. Whether the intent is to undercut Old Setter’s Fest or not, that very well could be the net result by asking roots fans to choose between one or the other, when if Ryan Bingham’s festival was simply held a few weeks before or after, there’s a good chance country and Americana fans in the area and beyond would go to both.
The scheduling conflict also comes after Old Settlers Fest faced incredible adversity last year to hold their festival, including a rival festival that was set up to undermine it. Old Settler’s decided a couple of years ago that it would move from its location at the Salt Lick Pavilion near Driftwood, TX where it had been for the last 16 years, to a piece of property the festival purchased near Lockhart, TX. Originally the festival was planning on a two-year transition to give it plenty of time to do updates and improvements on the new property. However the owners of the Salt Lick Pavilion told Old Settler’s organizers that they didn’t want to have the fest at the facility in 2018, citing concerns about “alienating new neighbors” near the festival site.
Old Settler’s was then forced to move to the new location a year early. Then the festival’s former partners at the Salt Lick Pavilion decided to set up a rival event called the Driftwood Music Festival, and hold it on the same weekend as Old Settler’s Fest. The organizers of this new Driftwood Music Festival even used images from previous Old Settler’s Festivals on their website and social media, used lists of volunteers, paid staff, and vendors to lure previous participants in Old Settler’s away from the original organization, and even implied in some of their verbiage that Driftwood was the true continuation of Old Settler’s Fest, not Old Settler’s Fest itself.
A legal battle ensued, and ultimately a judge sided in the favor of Old Settler’s Fest, imposing an injunction against the Driftwood Music Festival organizers, restricting them from holding their festival on the same weekend. Driftwood Music Festival ultimately decided to postpone the festival altogether. However the resulting legal fees incurred by Old Settler’s Fest, the increased costs of having to ready a festival site a year earlier than planned, and then poor weather in 2018 have all put the festival in a financial bind. Old Settler’s Fest will be moving forward in 2019 confidently, but after the incredible financial burden of 2018, the festival needs a rebound year in 2019.
Like many grassroots non-profit festivals, Old Settler’s Fest is not just an event, it’s a community. Specifically, many families have attended for many years, camping out and playing music around campfires into the night. The event holds a youth competition each year that has given rise to numerous musical talents during its tenure, including Sarah Jarosz who returned to the event in 2018 to headline in her supergroup I’m With Her. Ryan Bingham’s The Western Fest is directly competing with Old Settler’s in demographics. For example, Colter Wall played Old Settler’s in 2018. This year, he’s playing The Western Fest.
Just as important, Old Settler’s Fest may overshadow The Western Festival, which at this point has only announced a small lineup of eight names, and has replaced the previously-announced Margo Price with The Wild Feathers. It’s unclear just how big The Western Festival might become, and it may get crushed by Old Settler’s itself, which would be a shame, and may push Ryan Bingham’s event either out of the region, or it may not be held again.
Austin, TX and the surrounding area is facing increasing pressure on its music community due to encroaching development and cost of living issues. Throughout the city, venues have been at odds with developers who are encroaching into traditional entertainment zones. The rule of thumb many venue owners and city planners are adopting to rectify such issues is to ask, “Who was here first?” Whomever is more established on a street or in a neighborhood are the ones who should have the right to freely operate, while a new venue or a new housing development should burden the cost and effort to keep neighbors happy. In this instance, it would be up to Live Nation to respect the established event, and hold their festival on a different weekend.
It is great that Ryan Bingham has chosen central Texas as the venue for his festival. Saving Country Music would love to cover the event and to continue to help promote what looks to be a stellar lineup taking shape. But Bingham and Live Nation should seriously consider moving the festival to a date not in direct conflict with Old Settler’s Fest for the benefit of both festivals, the fans in the region, as well as vendors, sponsors, and others who may want to participate in both events.
Of course with the way touring schedules and such operate, and the fact that tickets have already been sold, this request is probably impossible to fill at this point. But it should be seriously examined, and next year respect should be paid to the region’s more established events, especially one’s by non-profit entities with long ties to the music community and youth development. Otherwise, there may not be a next year for either of these important live music events.